Visa application/courtesy of shutterstock Visa application/courtesy of shutterstock

The New Jersey Division of  Consumer Affairs is targeting businesses that allegedly defraud consumers—mostly from Spanish-speaking Latin American countries—by calling themselves “notarios” and offering immigration advice.

The division announced Nov. 9 that it had issues notices of violation against 28 business in northern New Jersey that it said have improperly offered immigration advice to noncitizens.

In much of Latin America, lawyers also are known as “notarios” and are licensed to offer legal advice, but in the U.S., notarios generally are limited to notary public roles and are not permitted to offer legal advice. Doing so violates the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and advertising regulations, the division claims in the actions.

The notices were issued after a lengthy investigation by the division’s Office of Consumer Protection and seek a total of $326,000 in civil penalties, the division said.

State investigators visited suspected wrongdoers—notaries public, tax preparers, travel agencies among them—some of whom were quoting fees upward of $1,500 to provide immigration services that amounted to legal work. Only lawyers, representatives accredited by the U.S. Department of Justice and persons working for DOJ-recognized organizations may do such work, the division said. These recognized organizations generally offer their services for free or for only a nominal fee. The targeted businesses often don’t file immigration papers correctly, or at all, the division alleges.

“Today we are reinforcing our commitment to protecting all New Jersey residents, regardless of their legal status, from financial predators,” said Paul R. Rodríguez, the acting director of the division.

“At a time when immigrant communities feel threatened, it is more important than ever that we prevent unauthorized and unqualified practitioners from exposing individuals to heightened risk of deportation and loss of their legal rights,” Rodriguez said.

Civil penalties range from $6,000 to $16,000, the division noted.

In January 2012, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation, effective immediately, upgrading criminal and potential civil penalties for the unauthorized practice of law. It passed both houses of the Legislature without opposition. Before Christie signed it, a person who practiced law without a license and created or reinforced a false impression he was licensed was guilty of a fourth-degree crime under N.J.S.A. 2C:21-22. Now, it is a third-degree crime and violations carry a potential term of three to five years and a $15,000 fine.